Tackling the Greatest Digital Divide

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The Internet is leaving America’s elderly behind and we’re all paying the cost.

What’s the most persistent digital divide in America? It isn’t by race, income or educational attainment, studies show, but by age.

Just 56 percent of Americans over 65 are online, according to a May study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, compared with 83 percent of people aged 50 to 64, 92 percent of people 30 to 49 and 98 percent of 18-to-29 year olds. The 2013 study represented the first time the percentage of America’s online elderly tipped over the 50 percent mark.

The racial divide, by comparison, only runs from 76 percent of Hispanic Americans who are online to 85 percent of blacks and 86 percent of non-Hispanic whites, Pew found.

The divide measured by income is somewhat greater, from 76 percent of households that make less than $30,000 per year to 96 percent of households that make more than $75,000. The education divide comes closest to the age divide. About 59 percent of Americans who didn’t complete high school are online, Pew found, compared with 96 percent of college graduates.

The effects of this divide can be pernicious, said Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, a Washington-area nonprofit that works to increase Internet use among the elderly. Disconnected seniors are more likely to feel isolated and sink into depression, Sarmiento said, especially if they’re housebound by physical ailments or have lost much of their nondigital social circle to death, disease or dementia.

A 2009 report by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies found a 20 percent reduction in depression among seniors who are online compared with those who are not.

“We all end up paying for that in terms of older people needing more care because their health deteriorates,” Sarmiento said. “So being able to lessen that isolation online, not just with email but with Skype and things like that could have a tremendous impact.”

Retirees who need to return to the workforce because of reductions to their pensions are also finding it more difficult because job postings are increasingly only online, Sarmiento said. That’s not to mention the struggle of actually competing in the increasingly digital workforce.

This digital divide is even more exaggerated when it comes to mobile.

Only 18 percent of American seniors use smartphones, according to a Pew study released in June, compared with 55 percent of Americans aged 45 to 54, 69 percent of Americans 35 to 44 and about 80 percent of Americans 18 to 34.

A Pew study released Monday showed 43 percent of America’s online seniors use social media now. That’s more than triple the 13 percent who used those sites in 2009 but roughly half the 72 percent of total Americans who use social networking.

Nextgov spoke with Sarmiento Tuesday about why the digital divide persists among seniors, what it means and what government can and should be doing about it. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

What lessons do you take from studies showing more older Americans are using the Internet, smartphones and Web services such as social networking?

Well, the good news is that last year you had a majority of older Americans online, but that’s a slim majority. That means there are 24 million who are not online and it doesn’t look as if there’s much effort to do anything about that. There are a number of interrelated reasons why the digital divide among those older people persists but in the end I think the current publicly funded efforts and market forces aren’t making much of a dent.

What did you think about the Pew findings released Monday showing a tripling of seniors using social media?

The thing I took away from the latest findings is that once an older person goes online what they use the Internet for is becoming more and more similar to other users. Also, as the kinds of services available on the Internet continue to change, it’s becoming clear that the digital divide isn’t a fixed idea. We used to think the wrong side of the divide meant not having dial up at home. Now the threshold that separates the right and wrong sides of the divide may not be just having broadband at home. Maybe you do need mobile access. Maybe you need to be able to do social media.

What keeps elderly people from getting online?

One of the big hurdles is there are a lot of people who say ‘I’ve lived 65 or 70 or 90 years and I never needed this before so why do I need it now?’ One early report Pew did that stuck with me is they looked at people with less income and less education and then they compared older and younger people with those characteristics. The big change they found in terms of being on the wrong side of the digital divide is that no one had to convince young people they were missing out on something. Their peers were online and they got the sense there was all sorts of stuff they were missing.

Older people too often believe ‘there’s nothing in it for me. Why should I deal with the hassle of a new bill or a new technology or another damn remote,’ let alone the trouble of learning all this stuff. When you don’t know what you’re missing you’re much tougher to reach as a potential market. What we’ve learned when we’ve reached out to older adults is you’re not going to break through this irrelevancy barrier by some kind of mass media campaign. It has to be with a personal touch where one older person helps another older person discover ‘hey, you can really do something here.’

Are there fewer older seniors online because they are less likely to have used the Internet before retirement?

Yes. And that helps to explain why companies that are trying to make money on this segment of the population, often decide it’s just not worth it. It would just cost way too much to convince older customers they should be online and given their age, you know, they might not be customers for that long. So the return on investment just gets weaker and weaker.

On the other side of the coin, what’s causing the overall increase in seniors online?

Well, the other end of the spectrum is people who are entering the group of so-called younger older people or the older baby boomers. Many of them learned this Internet stuff on the job before they retired so they don’t need to get over the digital divide. But there’s also a class difference. If baby boomers aren’t online, it’s because they weren’t in an occupation where being online was important.

Clearly there’s also been a positive effect from older people, particularly those with more income and education, deciding for themselves that ‘maybe there’s something in this for me, my kids are online, my grandkids are online and so if I want to stay in touch with them I’d better get with the program.’

Finally, there’s also the iPad. For a lot of older people, this is a much more user friendly interface where they can much more quickly get to what really interests them and what’s really useful about being online as opposed to the long slog of learning how to use the mouse and the operating system and all that.

Can the government save money in the long run by getting more seniors online?

I think in theory you can, but it’s like the line from Moonstruck where the plumber says you’ve got to spend money to save money.

So what should the government be doing?

That’s a big policy question. Maybe we should try to expand the Lifeline Program, [a Federal Communications Commission initiative to provide low-cost Internet and mobile phone service to poor Americans].

There’s also Connect to Compete, [a partnership between non-profits and telecoms that offers low-cost broadband to poor Americans]. Those providers mostly use the free or reduced school lunch program to verify eligibility, so that’s clearly having no effect on older households, except for older people raising their grandchildren. We’ve proposed that maybe you could use SNAP [the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps] as another way to determine eligibility so households headed by older people with no school-aged kids would be included.

That might address affordability, but if you’re really going to make a dent in the 24 million older adults who aren’t online that’s necessary but not sufficient. You’ve got to deal with the need for instruction designed for older learners. What we’ve found in our experience is if we can mobilize older people to serve as coaches for their peers, that can address the irrelevance problem and a little bit of the skills training.

That’s one reason public libraries are very important, but in too many places funding for public libraries is getting dire. So you come to the conclusion that neither market forces nor the public has the resources to break through that barrier. 

Maybe you look at this and say it’s just too overwhelming but I say let’s try.